When your friend receives the news of having cancer, how should you respond? It seems like cancer is being diagnosed more and more these days. The longer we live, the greater the likelihood that one of our friends will be diagnosed with the dreaded disease.
It is hard to give a list of things that will be most comforting in every situation, but here are some tips for supporting your friend who has cancer.
Table of contents
#1 Educate Yourself
You don’t need to have the knowledge of a doctor, nor should you give advice like one; but learning about the particular type of cancer your friend has will help them. First, they won’t need to go into all the scary details trying to explain the cancer to you. You won’t have to ask questions your friend may not be ready to answer. You also demonstrate that you care by making the effort to understand the problem.
With this self-education you may gain some knowledge that your friend may not know. Ask God to give you wisdom in sharing what you have learned. It may be best to keep your new-found information to yourself. It could also be that God would have you share some of your research. Be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in this matter. Telling someone that there is a 65% cure rate really isn’t that comforting no matter how much hope it gives you.
You should keep the following things in mind when doing your research on your friend’s situation. Remember that doctors spend years learning about the human body and how it responds to diseases. It would be foolish to think that our 30 minutes of research on the Internet gives us more knowledge than those doctors. And just because something is available on the Internet does not mean that it is necessarily true.
#2 Be There
When I say you should be there for your friend, in many cases that is all that is necessary at the time: be present. You may not need to say anything. You may not need to do anything. Just your presence may be all they need. They may not know the time sacrifice you may be making for them. Don’t feel the need to point that out to them. They may not be able to express why your presence is helpful, just know that it is. They will appreciate it later even if they don’t know why at the time.
During your time together (which may be silent and awkward) pray for your friend. These may be silent prayers; or, if appropriate, gently and confidently call out to God on your friend’s behalf.
#3 Offer Help
Sometimes people don’t know how to ask for help. We all know that life is busy. Your friend may not want to bother you with a task. Don’t make them feel bad for not asking, but offer to help. Be proactive in your offer. Don’t just say, “Can I help you with anything?” Ask your friend specific questions like, “Would it be OK for me to pick up your kids from school?”, “Can I take your dog for a walk this afternoon?”, or “I could stop by on Sunday morning and help you get your kids ready for church. What time should I be here?”
Small tasks that are normally important to your friend may be easily forgotten. Notice those things and take care of them. This could include mowing the lawn, doing laundry, watering the plants, or taking the children to the library on Saturday morning.
#4 Create Distractions
It is certainly appropriate to talk about the cancer and the diagnosis. This is the foremost thing in your friend’s mind. However, don’t let the cancer drown out everything else in their life. Continue to talk about normal topics of interest you share. If you are both involved in a hobby, try to get your friend to engage in that pastime.
Often when people receive a hard diagnosis they don’t want to go right back to church. They want to avoid the questions and the need to explain multiple times what is going on. This is understandable, but you should try to gently encourage your friend back to church. Public worship can be difficult, but it can also provide that much-needed distraction.
These distracting topics or activities will give your friend a chance to focus on something else for a while. This does not cure the cancer, but it can be a wonderful mental break from everything else that is going on.
#5 Say The Right Things
Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. Just be present. But there are some things that can be helpful to say to your friend during this time. There are also some things you should avoid saying.
Things not to say:
- Anything that puts the focus on you: I feel helpless. I know how you feel.
- Anything that trivializes the situation or makes a comparison to something worse: You’ll be fine. Don’t worry. You just need to pray. It could be worse. God has a reason.
- Observations should be avoided: You don’t look sick. Wow! You’ve lost so much weight.
Things that are appropriate to say:
- I love you.
- I am thinking about you.
- I am praying for you.
- I don’t know what to say, but I want to be here for you.
Let them talk when they want to talk. You don’t have to lead every conversation (though for appropriate distractions, you may need to take control). Don’t insist they talk. Make yourself available at any time they would like to call or text. And let them know that it is OK for them to not answer the phone when you call. Respect their need to not answer questions or give information.
When they want to talk, give them your full attention. Look them in the eye and put your cell phone away. Don’t give them any reason to think that something else is more important than them at the moment. There are times when people become overly self-centered as the process wears on, but initially you should give them all the attention they need to feel like you really are wanting to support them.
While you are supporting your friend, don’t neglect their family who is also hurting during this time. A friend of mine recently went through a difficult illness and death. His wife was trying to get information to our small network of friends, but had trouble remembering what information she told to what people. We were able to help by having her give all the information she wanted to share to one particular friend. That person then took the responsibility to tell everyone else. Once the burden of being a broadcaster was out of the way she was able to focus her attention on having the best last few days with her husband that she could have. Find ways to help the immediate family members during this process.
May God give you the grace to be a true and loving friend to your friend in need.
Related reading: 17 Inspirational Bible Verses for Cancer Patients
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When your husband is a pastor you hear everybody’s news. You never get used to it. It just becomes part of who you are…dealing with sadness. I pray for the emotional health of my husband on a daily basis. He deals with a lot of heavy issues. Cancer is a common theme. Everybody has someone in their circle that is affected with it or by it. It’s awful. I dread the phone calls when Fred tells me that someone we know, someone we love, someone we hold dear has just been diagnosed with cancer. My heart always sinks and I get an awful feeling in my stomach. I got that feeling about two months ago. A good friend of ours about my age, a mother of three young children, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnosis hurt me to my core. I felt like I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to pray. I didn’t know the best way to respond. I know I’m not alone in this.
My friend is halfway through her chemotherapy treatments. The first eight weeks were a nightmare. Her hair is gone. Her energy is zapped. But her smile and joy still remain. I know she had/has moments of anxiety. Who wouldn’t? I know she has moments where she can’t get out of bed. She thinks about things that don’t cross our minds. This Monday I had the privilege of taking her to chemo. We waited in one room to be taken to another and then another. She had blood drawn, her port prepared, and then we settled in for her treatment. You know what I noticed?? Cancer does not know race, gender, age, economic or social status…none of it. There was a room full of all kinds of people. My friend and I talked and laughed and ate through her entire treatment. But being in the treatment room really got me to thinking about all of these people walking around with this disease. How can we best help? What is the best thing we can do? So, I asked my friend to help me write this article. She gave me some pearls of wisdom that I want to share with you.
Don’t just pray in generalities. Pray for specific things. Let your friend know what you are specifically praying for them. My friend writes these specific prayers in a journal and then watches God answer the requests.
2. Take them meals.
People going through chemo are extremely tired. Any help that you can give them would be great…a home cooked meal, take out, or a restaurant gift card.
3. Don’t talk about people you know that have died from cancer.
Seriously people, don’t do this. I know it’s hard to come up with things to say, but no one with cancer wants to be reminded of your relative that had a horrible time through treatment and then experienced a horrible death. Why does this need to be said? People tell my friend these horror stories all.the.time. Seriously, don’t do it.
4. Help with the family.
If she has young children, help her get the kiddos to school or pick them up. Help her around their house with housework. If she has caregivers (parents, siblings, spouse, etc.), encourage them, pray for them, and check on them. The only thing worse than having cancer is watching someone struggle through it. Check on the family.
5. Talk about things other than cancer.
50, 938 people a day ask how the treatments are going. I get it. People just care. I really do get it. Cancer does not have to define the person walking through it, though. There is so much more going on than this disease. Talk about her children and how school is going. Check to see if God is working in an amazing way in his life. Talk about the weather. Talk about your menu plan. Talk about this blog (Okay, that may be a stretch, but you know…). Give your friend a hug. Whisper in her ear that you are praying for a specific area of her life and then move on.
6. Send an encouraging card.
In this day and age of technology we forget about simple cards…through the post office. You know, pen to paper, address, and then a stamp. Send a card with some kind of encouragement.
7. Provide transportation to and from treatments.
Treatments can leave your friend feeling tired or unable to drive. Having someone take you to and from treatment and sitting with you through it provides a great deal of encouragement.
8. Laugh with them.
Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful (joyful, merry) heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Laugh it up. Share a funny story. Talk about funny memories. Anything to release some stress. Laughter really is the best medicine.
9. Pick a verse of scripture and pray it over your friend.
Pray for a scripture to use. Perhaps you have a favorite scripture that you use during times of stress. Use this one. Let your friend know you are praying that verse over her.
My friend has chosen Joshua 1:9 as her verse through this season, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” My friend’s name is Missy. She is brave (even though she doesn’t think she is). She is bold. And she is handling this season with all the grace and dignity I think possible, through the power of Jesus Christ. If you get a chance today, will you pray with me for my friend? Pray that she will be strong and courageous. Pray that she will not be terrified. Pray that she will not be discouraged. Pray for her husband. Pray for her children, her parents, and her sister. Pray that God will work in a mighty way in their lives. And pray that He will receive all of the glory and praise that He deserves from this situation. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
I’ll leave you with the verse of scripture I’ve chosen to pray over my friend from Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.”
She’s young. She’s a mom. And now she has cancer. It doesn’t seem fair. Here’s how you can really help.
Candace Williams says nothing can prepare you for when your doctor turns to you and says ‘you have cancer.’ Yet, that’s precisely what happened to her in March, 2011. The 36 year-old esthetician, salon owner and mother of two didn’t fit the profile of the typical breast cancer patient. Nonetheless she faced the disease head-on, juggling everything during a year of treatment.
“Being sick was really tough for me,” she says. “My darkest hour was mid-way through the chemotherapy. I would get sick, and as soon as I started to feel better, I would have to go and get sick again.”
Williams faced challenges unique to young women diagnosed with cancer. So often, they are the youngest person in the waiting room and are surrounded by friends who have no frame of reference for what they’re going through. In addition to fertility, sex and intimacy and body image challenges, they experience isolation. Online support groups like BrightPink.org and YoungSurvival.org can be incredibly valuable.
So often friends rally around asking what they can do. Besides pray — to whomever, and make it go away — forever, it’s hard to know how friends and relatives can help. Here are 10 ideas to help a friend battling cancer.
Offer Specific Help
Assume that she needs you and is either reluctant to ask or unable to articulate her needs. Saying “if you need anything, call me” puts the burden on the patient. Psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, a Care.com parenting expert, suggests you offer pragmatic things such as driving carpool, making dinner (Take Them a Meal is a great resource to use as you can create a schedule for the family so people won’t prepare tuna noodle casseroles six nights in a row!), doing the laundry or helping with the kids’ homework. And with her anti-bodies (and energy) at an all-time low, she’ll need a healthy meal and a clean home more than ever. See if you can find a cleaning person to work around her chemo schedule. This might be a gift a few friends can chip in on.
Help Her Find a Great Wig
Before chemo, take her to start looking for a wig to match her hair color, texture and style. Since a good wig can be very expensive, consider taking up a collection for her from friends. Nonprofits like CancerCare and the American Cancer Society provide wigs, prostheses and mastectomy bras to women who can’t afford them. You can also arrange for girlfriends to donate hair to Beautiful Lengths or Locks of Love to support the production of quality wigs — and to show her your support.
Get Pictures Taken
Now might not seem like the best time for a glamour shoot, but before your friend loses her hair, gains or loses weight depending on the drug side-effects, and feels really run down, arrange for a private session with a photographer. Get the family session, but also make sure he takes portraits of her alone. They can be inspirational and empowering for people about to embark on a journey like this.
Respect Her Care Decisions
While it may be tempting to bombard her with well-meaning advice, offer to share additional or alternate resources only if she wants them. “She may feel very connected to her doctor and interpret this as trying to take that away,” says Ludwig.
Be a Health Buddy
Cancer patients are overwhelmed by information and emotions caused by endless treatments and doctor appointments. Be her eyes, ears and brain by attending doctors’ appointments or handling time-consuming healthcare and insurance tasks. “Sit with her in the waiting room, join her for a cup of tea right before and be there in appointments to be her CNT or Chief Note Taker,” says Lindsay Avner, founder and CEO of Bright Pink.
Take Her Mind Off Cancer
No matter how well-intentioned, talking about cancer gets old quickly for someone whose life is already consumed by the disease. Let your friend know that you are there to listen and allow her to take the lead about the discussion. She’d welcome hearing funny stories, having a spa day or a sleep-over just to take her mind off her illness.
Understand Her Flakiness
One day she may want to be alone and the next day she may want to be surrounded by friends. Let her know it’s okay if she cancels and don’t take it personally if a few calls, texts or emails go unanswered, says Avner. Given what she’s going through, this is to be expected.
Establish an Online Information Warehouse
Answering the same questions about her treatment, diagnosis and/or prognosis can be exhausting and time-consuming. Offer to set up a Facebook page or blog where friends and associates can go for updates on her care and health status. She can manage it, if she’s up to it. Or you can post the info she wants people to know. Using a private blog or group can also help you coordinate the carpooling, babysitting and meal-making the local followers will want to take off her hands.
Some resources for this are Navigating Cancer and Lotsa Helping Hands. Both allow your friend to set up a personal profile or blog so friends and family are up-to-date with their treatment. A calendar is system is also used to coordinate help such as meals, driving, etc. Caring Bridge is another resource and a great to share what is going on with friends and family through an online journal.
Give the Right Gifts
Avner advises skipping the flowers, food and perfumes, since women are often sensitive while going through treatment. When cancer survivor Diem Brown realized that many friends wanted to give a gift but didn’t know what was appropriate, she started MedGift, the first ever patients’ gift registry where people coping with illness or health conditions can post their gift needs, wants and wishes. Help with medical bills, a portable DVD player for the chemo treatments, gift cards to a local caterer are some examples. And if a friend is uncomfortable starting the registry herself, offer to organize it for her.
The trauma of having cancer doesn’t go away when treatment ends. Even if she recovers, your friendship is still crucial. This is the time when she has to let go of expectations and listen to her body. “In the past, she may have been a go, go, go social type but now she may need more rest and balance,” says Avner. “Creating a new normal and finding the love and trust in her body post-treatment continue well after the last treatment is finished.”
More Cancer Resources
For young women with breast cancer, Dana-Farber offers a program to help you coordinate your treatment and give you the additional support you may need. For more information, visit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Program for Young Women.
To get connected to others who have had the same type of cancer, contact the R. A. Bloch Cancer Foundation.